- Historic Sites
America In London
Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
Most of London’s Americana, however, is so carefully hidden and tucked away that even the most determined enthusiast can easily miss it. In a small courtyard along a narrow passage leading off St. James’s Street, for instance, is the old Texas Legation. Few Londoners and fewer Texans have ever spotted the bronze tablet in Pickering Place with its Lone Star recording those three remarkable years from 1842 when the Republic of Texas had its own ministers at Queen Victoria’s Court of St. James’s.
The same is true of 14 Princes Gate, a terrace mansion almost next door to the Iranian Embassy, which caught the headlines in 1980 when it was stormed by British commandos to end a hostage crisis. Most of the reporters covering that story missed the fact that No. 14, with its Indian chief in full headdress over the main entrance, became the home of John F. Kennedy in 1938, when his father was appointed ambassador in London.
John F. Kennedy was already familiar with the city, having studied in 1935 at the London School of Economics (LSE) under Harold Laski, a prominent Marxist and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “My father wanted me to see both sides of the street” was Kennedy’s explanation in later years. Incidentally, his election as President earned a paragraph in the LSE magazine under the laconic heading “Old Student’s Success.” Kennedy’s assassination profoundly shocked the British. There was no disagreement when the government decided to give three acres of land at historic Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, to the United States as a memorial. It is now American territory in perpetuity.
In terms of pure, concentrated Americana, however, no place in London can rival Westminster Abbey. Every citizen of the United States is entitled to regard it as a direct, personal heritage, just as President Jimmy Carter did some years ago when he admired the bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the Poets’ Corner but complained about the absence of a memorial to one of his favorite writers, the Welshman Dylan Thomas. The abbey authorities got the message, and a stone was duly installed.
The Congressional Medal of Honor hangs by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The abbey’s processional cross, carried at coronations, royal weddings, and other state occasions, was the gift in 1906 of Rodman Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate. To mark the nine hundredth anniversary of the abbey, in 1966, his family added twenty diamonds.
Here at Westminster lie the mortal remains of Col. Henry Disney, ancestor of the more illustrious Walt; of Gen. John Burgoyne, late of Saratoga; of Adm. Edward Vernon, remembered in Mount Vernon; of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia; of Queen Elizabeth I, the namesake of Virginia; of King Charles II, the namesake of Carolina; of Queen Anne, she of Annapolis; and here, too, lies Mr. Henry Warren, a Londoner born in Greenwich, who bought land on Manhattan Island and named the plot Greenwich Village.
Most touching of the abbey tombs —and one of the most elaborate—is that of Maj. John André, shot as a spy by George Washington after the wretched muddle with Benedict Arnold over West Point. André was a reluctant partner in the plot to surrender the fortress to the British, and Washington himself acknowledged that he was “more unfortunate than criminal.” By way of posthumous recompense, his body was reinterred in the abbey in 1821.
And Arnold? He lived on in London until 1801, somewhat clouded because of his part in André’s death but nevertheless regarded as a military genius. Americans who are prepared to indulge their regard for black sheep should go to St. Mary’s Church in Battersea, just up the river from Westminster. There, far from his native Connecticut, the bones of Benedict Arnold rest in a sort of peace. Unlike John André, no forgiving ship has ever arrived to carry them home.
No city on either side of the Atlantic is more involved in the American story.
A crude plaque tells the story: “In this crypt lie buried the bodies of Benedict Arnold, sometime general in the army of George Washington and of his faithful and devoted wife Margaret Arnold of Pennsylvania and of their loved daughter Sophia Matilda Phipps. The two nations whom he served in turn in the years of their enmity have united in this memorial as a token of their enduring friendship.”
Before we leave Westminster Abbey, one final American link demands attention: the figure of William Pitt the Elder in the abbey waxworks. It was made in 1779 by the mysterious Patience Lovell Wright, a New Jersey woman who had set up a studio in London a few years earlier. Mrs. Wright was more than a waxworker; she was also an intelligence agent acting for the revolutionary cause, passing information to Congress.